New Kane County Cougars manager Mark Johnson was busy “playing Mr. Mom” in his offseason Georgia home when he was named to the position earlier this week. The 37-year-old Johnson, a former Midwest Leaguer and White Sox catcher, managed many of the Cubs’ top emerging prospects in Boise, Idaho, last season, helping the Hawks to the short-season Northwest League championship series. Johnson expects many of those players to join him at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, where fans, players and club brass alike anxiously await a new era in which the Cubs’ Low-A affiliate plays a manageable drive from Wrigley Field. Catching up with Johnson for the latest edition of the Weekend Chit-Chat, Kane County Chronicle sportswriter Kevin Druley spoke with Johnson about his new gig. The following is an edited transcript:
Tell me a little about the timetable and what inclination the Cubs gave you about managing in A ball this coming season.
Right after instructional league or something like that, I think, is usually when they let you know. But obviously, it’s not written in stone until they announce it.
Having played in the Midwest League [with then-White Sox affiliate South Bend], what are your thoughts about the level of ball?
The Midwest League is a good, competitive league. Its got its challenges with the cold weather and all that which is a good experience for these young kids that are coming up. They’re going to have to play in that cold weather at other levels. And being close to Chicago is another good learning experience for these young prospects and guys that are going to play and eventually play in the big leagues and have to relate with the media and all that. I think it’s going to be a real good season for some of these young guys.
The Cubs’ move to Kane County was coming to pass as you were advancing in the postseason in Boise. How much did you and the guys have a pulse on that?
Yeah, we heard about it. And when they found out they were going to do it. Obviously, it’s a great move for everybody. I know the Cubs and I’m very excited about going up there, being that close to Chicago again and kind of having that atmosphere of [being] a little bigger than the Midwest League, you know. A normal MIdwest League town, it’s not one of those, obviously.
Certainly the club dictates it, but some of the prospects you’ve managed already figure to be in Kane County.
And it’s a really talented group of guys. [First baseman Dan] Vogelbach, and not naming names, but the whole group I had last year are really super talented, but on top of that, they’re really hard workers and they just need the experience. It’s a fun group of kids to watch play, and it’s a joy to be able to go to work with those guys. I’m sure they’re looking forward to it just as much as I am. As far as their development, you know, like I said earlier, the whole being close to Chicago and having a lot of front office people in and out and having a little bit bigger media base, obviously it’s going to do nothing but help these kids develop ... to play in Chicago, which is the ultimate goal.
Does it also do nothing but help when a manager is not too far removed from playing himself?
It definitely helps. I know what they’ve got to do, and I didn’t forget how hard this game was to play and all the other things you have to deal with while you’re playing.
You and [new Cougars pitching coach] Ron Villone were teammates on the 2008 Cardinals. How’d you get along?
I was only there for spring training and September, but I was in the bullpen and he was in the bullpen, and obviously we had our talks and we spent some time together out there late in the season. Ron, he’s what you want in a pitching coach. He had to grind his way through, and he’s a super competitor and a really good teammate. Yeah, we spent some time together that September.
Your high school [Warner Robins, Ga.] has produced its share of pro athletes. Something in that Georgia air?
We had a really good group of baseball players my age, including Russell Branyan, who played for almost 20 years. ... It’s a good area for sports. A lot of good players have come out of here for football and baseball. People take their sports seriously around here and it’s just a good area to play. You can pick and choose which sport and don’t have to worry about the weather too much.
[Former NFL running back] James Brooks was another pro from Warner Robins. Did you always pick his team in Tecmo Super Bowl?
He was pretty good in that game actually. Tecmo Bowl. I forgot about that game. ... James Brooks, Ron Simmons, Eddie Anderson, they all played football at my high school.